Are they trying to hide something? “Beliefs in conspiracy theories may not be increasing”

The title of this post is a pun for the 2 or 3 persons who didn’t get it, but this study that was published in July may come as a surprise to many as it contradicts popular thinking about beliefs in conspiracy theories, suggesting that such beliefs may not have actually increased over time. The researchers are cautious – as all researchers should be – to make huge conclusions, but maybe it could be true what Dr Joseph Uscinski states: “Some conspiracy theories are gaining in popularity, but many are not. At any given time, perhaps because of political circumstances, some conspiracy theories will be more attractive, but at the same time, many others will recede into history.”

From the press release:

A new analysis contradicts popular thinking about beliefs in conspiracy theories, suggesting that such beliefs may not have actually increased over time. Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami, Florida, and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on July 20, 2022.

Belief in a conspiracy theory involves holding the opinion that a small group of people has covertly coordinated to cause a certain event or circumstance, despite a lack of appropriate evidence. In recent years, the perception that beliefs in conspiracy theories have increased has become widespread among the general public, as well as among scholars, journalists, and policymakers, with many blaming social media. However, few studies have examined whether such perceptions actually hold true.

To help clarify whether beliefs in conspiracy theories are increasing, Uscinski and colleagues conducted four different survey analyses. For the first, they investigated whether beliefs in certain conspiracy theories — including theories related to COVID-19 and the Kennedy assassination — have increased among Americans. The second analysis evaluated beliefs in conspiracy theories, such as the idea that human-driven global warming is a hoax, in six European countries. The third analysis addressed Americans’ beliefs in which specific groups are conspiring, and the fourth measured general lines of thought in the U.S. linked to belief in conspiracy theories.

In all four analyses, the researchers found no statistically significant evidence that beliefs in conspiracy theories have increased over time. A greater number of beliefs in specific theories decreased than increased over time, and of those that did increase, none involved the COVID-19 pandemic nor QAnon.

The researchers emphasize the importance of caution in making inferences based in their findings and note that additional research will be needed to confirm the findings and to better understand beliefs in conspiracy theories, such as their psychological underpinnings and how they are promoted.

Nonetheless, these findings suggest that beliefs in conspiracy theories exist at certain baseline levels that may be concerning, and perhaps these levels are only now becoming more apparent to the public.

Dr. Adam Enders adds: “Despite popular claims about America slipping down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole into a state of post-truth, we do not find that conspiracism has increased over time. We examine beliefs in dozens of specific conspiracy theories, perceptions of who is likely to be involved in conspiracy theories, and the general predisposition to interpret events and circumstances as the product of conspiracy theories — in no case do we observe an average increase in conspiracy beliefs.”

Abstract of the study:

The public is convinced that beliefs in conspiracy theories are increasing, and many scholars, journalists, and policymakers agree. Given the associations between conspiracy theories and many non-normative tendencies, lawmakers have called for policies to address these increases. However, little evidence has been provided to demonstrate that beliefs in conspiracy theories have, in fact, increased over time. We address this evidentiary gap. Study 1 investigates change in the proportion of Americans believing 46 conspiracy theories; our observations in some instances span half a century. Study 2 examines change in the proportion of individuals across six European countries believing six conspiracy theories. Study 3 traces beliefs about which groups are conspiring against “us,” while Study 4 tracks generalized conspiracy thinking in the U.S. from 2012 to 2021. In no instance do we observe systematic evidence for an increase in conspiracism, however operationalized. We discuss the theoretical and policy implications of our findings.

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